Can fake news fight the looming economic crisis?

                                                              There are a number of critical numbers that do not, as yet, have an official imprimatur and hence are conveniently dismissed by the central government as unreliable and even fake. What about the GDP numbers? The government has been claiming that India has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world! All this chest-thumping does not square up with how the health of the economy is perceived by the likes of former Chief Economic Advisor of the government of India, Kaushik Basu, who thinks otherwise. In a tweet that incurred the wrath of many noisy, ruling party supporters, Basu said: “Over 2020-22, India’s annual GDP growth is .43 per cent. This places India in the middle of the global growth table.”

                                                                The big question is, does fudging figures and hiding the truth help in elections, and does it really help the economy? And, also, for how long?

                                                              Basu’s assertion punctured the claims of everyone in the government who insisted that we were one of the rapidly advancing economies of the world. What is really distressing is that the government did precious little to make such important facts indubitable — facts that cannot be questioned from within or by an economist based abroad.

                                                               Deliberately, it seems, the government has created a miasma of confusion over every data point that can allow researchers, writers or detractors to ascertain exactly what the state of Indian economy is. There is no data that can pass off without kicking off unnecessary controversy. Certainly, this never used to happen in the days of the Congress. India was a proud nation that kept its books clean and was known to be a master at smartly maintaining its key statistics.

                                                               Now, no one knows exactly how many people are employed or how many have lost his or her jobs due to the stark slow-down of the economy, or due to the two years of pandemic/lockdown-induced unemployment. All through 2020, when migrants were walking back to their far-flung villages from Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, there was large-scale obfuscation of how many returned home safely or how many lost their lives in their perilous journey. As no authoritative figures emanated from the government, the critique of the administration on how the pandemic was handled remained based on anecdotal evidence.

                                                               Expectedly, there was a BBC expose on how the decision to impose a claustrophobic lockdown on 1.4 billion people – a large majority of them daily wagers — was taken by the Prime Minister’s Office without consulting anyone of any significance. So tragic was the outcome of the lockdown, which found many of the homeless migrants in the throes of severe despair, poverty and hunger, walking for miles and days under a scorching sun on various highways, that leaders of countries like Nepal and Pakistan had to assure their citizens that they would not repeat the Indian lockdown. Understandably, these countries suffered less from the pandemic or its dreadful State interventions.

                                                               Even on the issue of deaths due to pandemic, the government has been coy in owning up how many died due to the coronavirus. It has hung on to a figure of 4.8 lakh deaths, which is 1/10th of what the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed. Government agencies are denying this estimates due to WHO’s methodology, but they seem loathe to update their own numbers.

                                                                Independent experts believe that there may be about 6 million deaths due to the virus in the country. What is also not known is the adverse impact of the vaccines. While vaccine-makers were firewalled from any criminal charge, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence here which squares with the well-documented loss of lives in the Western world due to the vaccine. More recently, the Mumbai  High Court has admitted a petition from a father who lost his daughter, who was a doctor, allegedly due to the vaccine. The father of the deceased blamed the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bill Gates for his daughter’s death.

                                                               There were thousands of similar cases, but the government was giving primacy to meeting vaccination targets rather than how ordinary people would react to the inoculation. The worrying truth is that the vaccines did not really get enough time to be tested on human beings and they were rushed through to fight the pandemic. No one is asking the question — did those areas in Africa, Latin America or Asia that did not get vaccinated fare worse than those countries that did? For instance, did Israel, which has allowed four to five vaccine shots, perform better – in terms of deaths due to virus — than those that did not get or take any? The government should have illuminated our masses rather than blindly agreeing to the findings of the legacy countries – US and the West.

                                                              By the look of it, the government sailed out of these crises rather safely. Despite the dodgy figures of countless migrants returning home or thousands of people gasping for breath due to the transparent lack of oxygen or hospital beds, and thereby dying due to a stark absence of emergency medical relief in many parts of the country, especially in Delhi, Gujarat and UP, the government continues to smell of roses as a country that fought the dreadful disease competently.

                                                               The credit for the success of the government should not go to how many people were vaccinated, but to how many people got free food once the country came under the sway of pandemic. By government estimates, 800 million got food grains every month after April 2020. Since then, the government has spent $18 billion every year, which adds up to $42 billion till now. The programme is scheduled to end on September 30. If that happens, then the price of food grains in the market would zoom to an astronomical level.

                                                               According to media reports, the Expenditure Department of the Finance Ministry is against any extension of the free foodgrain programme, since it would strain the budget. This decision would not be taken by economists, but by ruling party politicians who would recall the tremendous benefit free food gave them during the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. For them the impact on fiscal deficit would be seen as a minor distraction when the free food is getting people to vote with their hands and their feet. Be that as it may, if the government continues this free food programme under PMGKAY, then it would have serious consequences on inflation. Worse, the government would not adopt the monetary route to control the spiraling food inflation as it would dampen the economy.

                                                              The other bigger worry that the government is loathe to make noise is the stoppage of LNG to the Gas Authority of India (GAIL) after the German government took over after Gazprom Germania under temporary management, thus, disrupting a long-term deal between the two companies. Media reports suggest that GAIL is buying LNG at double the price at $40 mBtu. GAIL, which has an impossible target of 2.85 million tons to buy from the open market, could pauperise the company and cause strain on the budget. The company supplies 52 per cent of the gas to fertilizer and power companies. What this means is that the impact

                                                       of the Ukraine war from which India has been cushioned for some time, would be felt with all its tangible intensity. The likely scenario that could unfold is high power prices, strained food grain supplies and general restiveness that would come from spiraling inflation.

                                                                 Indeed, can obfuscation of data help in tiding over the looming crisis?

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With the Indian economy in dire straits amidst high inflation and unemployment, and with the impact of the Ukraine hitting the country with tangible intensity in the days to come, will the obfuscation of data help in winning the elections?